23 June 2024

Ten Ways Old Radio Shows Created Sound Effects That You Would Never Guess

Written by Ned Norris

The magic of old-time radio lies not just in the captivating stories but also in the vivid worlds created through sound. Before the era of digital effects, radio shows relied on ingenious and resourceful methods to produce lifelike soundscapes. These masters of audio were known as foley artists and the had a knack for being able to use the everyday household objects to create any sound required.


1. Breaking Bones with Celery

Imagine listening to a dramatic scene where a hero’s arm is brutally fractured. What you’re actually hearing might be the snap of a fresh celery stalk, portraying the crisp, unsettling sound of bones breaking. Some of the most bone-chilling moments in radio, quite literally, came from a humble vegetable.


2. Thunderstorms with Metal Sheets

When a fierce thunderstorm rolled through a show's storyline, sound engineers would grab large metal sheets. By shaking these sheets, they could emulate the low, rumbling growl of thunder. It’s as if the forces of nature were captured in a piece of tin, echoing through living rooms everywhere.


3. Footsteps with Shoes and Gravel Trays

Creating the sounds of footsteps was an art in itself. Gravel trays filled with different materials like pebbles, sand, and dirt replicated various terrains. Foley artists, wearing different types of shoes, would stomp, tiptoe, or march in these trays, making listeners feel as though they could hear characters walking right past them.


4. Horse Hooves with Coconuts

Picture the sound of a mighty horse galloping across an open plain. That rhythmic clopping wasn’t produced by a real horse but by deftly clicking together two coconut halves. Timing was crucial, and skilled sound artists could make it sound as if a whole cavalry was on the move.


5. Doors and Hinges with Simple Household Items

The eerie creak of a slowly opening door could send shivers down anyone’s spine. To achieve this, sound engineers used various methods, including manipulating actual door hinges, but sometimes, even the tightening and releasing of a simple leather belt could mimic that spine-tingling sound of a creaking door perfectly.


6. Rain with Rice and Tin

The soothing sound of rain pattering against a window or a rooftop was often simulated with creativity. Sprinkling rice grains onto tin sheets created the gentle, comforting sound of raindrops, while shaking the tin added the rhythmic drumming of a sudden downpour. It was a symphony of simplicity.


7. Gunshots with Desk Drawers and Starter Pistols

In the heat of a radio drama shootout, you’d likely hear the startling bang of a starter pistol or the sudden slam of a desk drawer. These sounds brought intense drama to life, conjuring images of Wild West duels or wartime battles in the minds of listeners.


8. Wind with an Aeolian Harp

To evoke the haunting sound of wind howling through a desolate landscape, sound artists turned to the Aeolian harp. Named after the Greek god of wind, this instrument produced eerie melodies as the breeze played its strings. This haunting tune could send shivers down anyone’s spine.


9. Animal Sounds with Voice Actors and Instruments

A bustling jungle or a packed farmyard wouldn't be complete without the right animal sounds. Skilled voice actors would mimic barks, meows, and growls, while creative instruments like the “donkey fiddle” could replicate more exotic noises. It was like having a whole menagerie in the studio.


10. Beheadings with Watermelons

For scenes requiring the spine-chilling sound of a decapitation, producers turned to an unlikely source—watermelons. Decapitating a juicy watermelon with a sword near a microphone produced a shockingly realistic effect. It brought a visceral, horrifying reality to dramatic tales, leaving listeners squirming at the thought of it.


The ingenuity behind these sound effects is a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of those early radio pioneers. By transforming ordinary objects into extraordinary auditory experiences, they brought their stories to life in ways that continue to inspire and amaze us today.

Nostalgic sepai style image of sound effects engineer for an old time radio show.

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